Gwinnett affordable housing project proposed for land near Dacula

Charlotte Nash and other Gwinnett County commissioners are slated to vote on a proposed affordable housing project Tuesday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO
Charlotte Nash and other Gwinnett County commissioners are slated to vote on a proposed affordable housing project Tuesday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

There’s no dispute that Gwinnett County needs more affordable housing.

But one proposed project, which county commissioners are slated to vote on Tuesday, begs the question: Where is the best place for those units to be built?

An Indiana development company thinks it’s found a great spot — on 15 acres near Ga. 316 and Winder Highway, outside of Dacula.

Birge & Held redevelopment company has proposed a 168-unit apartment complex geared to residents who make between $35,349 and $51,660 a year — or 60% of the area’s median income.

The land has been zoned for manufactured homes and single family homes for decades, but rocks near the Alcovy River property make it too expensive to develop, said Jarrod Brown, a Birge & Held managing director. His company plans to sell affordable housing tax credits to finance the construction, meaning there will be money available to deal with the tough terrain.

“There’s a significant need for significant affordable housing in Gwinnett County,” Brown said.

Not everyone agrees with the company’s site selection.

County staff and the planning commission have recommended that county commissioners deny a rezoning request that would allow construction of the apartment complex.

A staff report suggested apartments would be too dense for the neighborhood, and could lead to similar requests for more units in less space.

Neighbors said they valued their access to nature, which they said would be disturbed by development. They also worried that the project wasn’t right for the area, which they said was still rural in many ways.

“I’m all for affordable housing,” said Jason Kopydlowski. “It’s wonderful. But not here. It’s a special place.”

Affordable housing often has a negative connotation, said Tim Hur, a Gwinnett Realtor who is the past diversity chairman for the National Association of Realtors. But he said the perception that affordable housing brings crime and hurts property values isn’t necessarily true.

Affordable housing creates stability for families, he said, which help school systems and neighborhoods. Additionally, he said, multicultural communities like those found in Gwinnett have the highest rates of loan denials.

A project like this one, he said, could be appealing to a lot of residents.

“At the end of the day, it does mean bringing the necessary housing to help further our economy,” Hur said. “We need to make sure we have housing for everyone.”

Matt Elder, the director of HomeFirst Gwinnett, said while it’s important to have more affordable units, location also matters.

Mixed income communities do the best job of ensuring affordable housing is integrated in a community, he said, and having places to live close to schools and job centers make it easier for people to get to the places they need to go. He said affordable housing should be scattered throughout the county, not concentrated in one geographic area.

Brown has suggested his company could provide a shuttle to connect residents to the county’s bus system, so they can get to jobs using public transportation.

Some county commissioners have indicated they’re looking for ways to make the project happen.

Commissioner Ben Ku said that the proposal “looked like a good development.” Commissioner Jace Brooks said he thinks there’s a need for workforce housing and “it makes sense to have some of it in that area.”

“I think it’s the best thing for that piece of property,” he said.

Commissioners heard a presentation on the project late last month, but didn’t vote on the proposal. Commissioner Tommy Hunter, whose district includes the proposed site, said he’s hoping staff can give county leaders some ideas that could allow a version of the project to go forward while appeasing neighbors.

“I don’t know if I’ve got a goal to make it work or not,” he said. “It’ll be interesting.”

Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said she wouldn’t comment on the proposal itself. But she said that transit access is an important component for housing.

“I’m still trying to get my mind around what affordable housing means for Gwinnett County,” she said. “We definitely need a range.”

George Burgan, the communications director for the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, said his group has been working to increase affordable housing in Gwinnett. The county has had an increase in both renters and poverty, he said, and an increasing number of people are rent-burdened — spending more than half their paycheck on housing and transportation costs.

Brown said those are the residents he intends to target.

Ideally, Burgan said, affordable housing wouldn’t be congregated in one area. But he said the tax credits that would allow the project to be built are “critically important.”

“It definitely sounds like something that’s needed and necessary,” he said.